WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, voters in the nation’s capital are all but certain to approve a charter amendment that would grant the city more control over its municipal budget.
In theory, the amendment would take effect unless Congress passes a disapproval resolution and President Barack Obama signs it, which is unlikely given the enthusiastic support from Obama and Senate Democrats for greater independence for the District.
But it’s not clear what will happen if the referendum passes.
“I can definitively answer: Nobody knows,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the district in Congress.
Some city leaders fear the amendment will backfire, or at the very least, it won’t get the district any closer to its long-stated goal of spending local tax dollars without congressional approval. It could also be challenged in court, or opponents in Congress could try to defeat it.
The uncertainty shows that even after nearly 40 years of home rule, the path to greater freedom for the city to manage its affairs is not easy.
District leaders point to the city’s longstanding fiscal health in arguing that the local government shouldn’t have to wait for the OK from Congress to spend money. The District has had more than 15 consecutive years of balanced budgets and ended the last fiscal year with a $417 million surplus, most of which went to its rainy-day fund. Bond ratings are high and tax revenues continue to grow, thanks to a swelling population and a booming commercial real estate market.
That’s a dramatic turnaround from the early and mid-1990s, when the city was in such bad fiscal shape that Congress had to take over, stripping then-Mayor Marion Barry of most of his power in 1995. A control board suspended its activities in 2001, but the specter of its return and the tight spending controls installed during those years have helped prevent the city from falling back into deficits. Mayor Vincent Gray has made fiscal discipline a key component of his administration, building up the city’s reserve fund and resisting pressure from some D.C. councilmembers to spend surplus funds on social services.
In this climate, the Democratic mayor has been able to beat the drum for budget autonomy.
About 70 percent of the district’s $9.6 billion budget comes from local tax revenue. Allowing the city to spend those dollars would alleviate the risk that the local government would be unable to function during a federal shutdown. It would also allow the city to change its fiscal year, which follows the federal calendar of Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 and complicates school funding.
Gray has found an ally in Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs a committee that oversees the district. Issa introduced a budget autonomy bill last year, but Gray and Norton rejected it because it contained language banning the district from spending money on abortions for poor women. City leaders were also worried about the possibility of other amendments from conservative lawmakers interested in shaping policy on social issues.
Still, Norton and Issa believe the best way to give the district budget autonomy would be for Congress to pass a bill. And the Gray administration would be willing to consider a compromise on abortion funding to get that done, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the mayor has not taken a firm position. Congress has other ways to restrict city spending on abortions and has done so routinely when Republicans control the House, Senate or White House.
The budget autonomy referendum was hatched by DC Vote, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for the city, and another nonprofit, the DC Appleseed Center. It grew out of frustration that Congress was moving too slowly on the issue despite significant bipartisan support. The groups and their attorneys are convinced the charter amendment would be legal. And they have some high-profile allies, including former Republican Rep. Tom Davis, who pushed for district voting rights when he was in Congress.
But Norton and the Gray administration have been more cautious. District Attorney General Irvin Nathan warned in a memo that it might not pass legal muster. City voters can amend the charter, but the question is whether they can authorize an amendment that takes power away from Congress. Gray said he had reservations when the referendum was proposed, but it now has his support.
The D.C. Council voted unanimously to put it on the ballot.
“I said that I was dubious about it,” Gray told reporters last week. “But in light of that, I signed the bill with enthusiasm. I will be out enthusiastically voting for it.”
Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed, is cautiously optimistic that the measure will become law without a fight.
“After it becomes law, there is the possibility of someone trying to undercut it later on,” Smith said. “But we’ll have made progress when we get to that point, and we’ll address that problem when it comes.”
There’s no organized opposition to the referendum, and there aren’t many signs urging people to vote for it. It’s on the ballot during a special election for an open D.C. Council seat, for which voter turnout is expected to be low. DC Vote has been promoting the initiative with a series of happy-hour gatherings.
After the election, Norton said her mission will be to protect the referendum from interference by Congress. What she doesn’t know is where the interference would come from.
“There are a number of ways from within the Congress, and there are a number of ways people who oppose the district’s right to spend its own money could attack a referendum,” Norton said. “But I have no idea who would or who would care to or who would be inclined to. … This is a Congress that can’t be predicted from one day to the next.”
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